Updates on CyberSecurity, WordPress and what we're cooking in the lab today.

New in Wordfence 6.3.11: Abandoned and Removed Plugin Alerts

This entry was posted in Wordfence, WordPress Security on June 20, 2017 by Dan Moen   22 Replies

On Thursday of last week, we released Wordfence 6.3.11 which included a really exciting new feature: we are now alerting you if you are running a plugin that either appears to be abandoned or has been removed from the WordPress.org plugin directory. In this post, we explain how each of these new alerts work and why they’re so important to the security of your website.

Abandoned Plugins

At Wordfence, we define a potential abandoned plugin as one that has not been updated by its developers in at least 2 years. In May, we analyzed the plugins in the WordPress.org repo and found that almost half of them hadn’t been updated in over 2 years. Over a third of them had a compatibility tag for a WordPress version dating back to 2014 or earlier.

abandoned plugin alert

The alert we send tells you how long it’s been since the developer updated the plugin, as well as whether we found reference to any unpatched security issues with it and whether it has been tested with the current version of WordPress.

Why Should You Care if a Plugin Hasn’t Been Updated Recently?

If a developer hasn’t updated a plugin in two or more years, there is a really good chance that the plugin author has actually abandoned the plugin altogether. An author that has abandoned a plugin is very unlikely to fix any security vulnerabilities that users have reported. No plugin is immune to becoming a security vulnerability on a website, even simple plugins with small user bases. Simply put, the older a plugin’s code, the higher the risk of security issues.

Let’s look at ways that vulnerabilities happen or are discovered:

1. Many Plugins Use Software Components That Were Written by Someone Else

One of our favorite examples is the TimThumb vulnerability that was discovered in 2011 by someone we know quite well here at Wordfence. TimThumb was an image-sizing utility that was included in lots of themes and plugins. Once the WordPress community discovered the vulnerability, all of the theme and plugin authors who had used it had to scramble to release a fix of their own for each of their plugins.

In the case of an abandoned plugin, the authors wouldn’t likely be available apply a quick fix. To this day, we continue to see attacks seeking to exploit this very old vulnerability on sites that we protect.

2. WordPress Plugins Function in a Very Dynamic Environment

WordPress.org publishes core WordPress updates constantly, and  PHP, Apache, Nginx and updates to other plugins and themes are posted at least as often, too. This continually changing landscape represents a security risk over time.

A great example is the ‘add_query_arg()’ and ‘remove_query_arg()’ issue that GoDaddy/Sucuri discovered two years ago. The issue here was with a WordPress function that plugin and theme developers use to interact with WordPress core. To fix the issue, each plugin developer needed to update their code and push updates. Any plugin author who was no longer paying attention would likely miss this and leave the vulnerabilities in their code.

3. Security Researchers and Attackers Are Constantly Finding Vulnerabilities

As of this writing, the WPVulndb website has publicly reported five WordPress plugin vulnerabilities in the last week alone.

When a security researcher discovers a vulnerability, they reach out to the developer, disclose the details and give them a fixed amount of time to release a fix. Once the author releases the fix, the researcher generally publishes their findings publicly.

However, in cases where the author does not respond, such as with an abandoned plugin, the researcher will sometimes release the details anyway, giving attackers the information they need to exploit it. The worst case scenario is when an attacker is the first to discover a vulnerability, leaving literally all of the sites running that plugin vulnerable to attack before developers get the chance to release a fix.

What Should You Do if One of Your Plugins Appears to be Abandoned?

The best option in this situation is to remove the plugin and replace it with a plugin whose author is actively maintaining the code. If a suitable replacement doesn’t exist and you are a software developer, or know someone who is, it might be possible to assess the risk and potentially decide to maintain it yourself going forward if vulnerabilities are reported.

Plugins Removed from WordPress.org

Plugins listed in the WordPress.org plugin directory need to follow a set of guidelines. The list of requirements is long, so there are a wide variety of reasons why the WordPress.org team may remove a plugin.

One common security reason is that a security researcher has discovered a vulnerability, contacted the author without getting a response, and then contacted the WordPress plugin team about the author’s unresponsiveness. The WordPress plugin team will do their best to contact the author, but if they also receive no response, they will subsequently remove the plugin from the plugin directory.

It’s important to stress that not all of the reasons for removing a plugin represent something that should lead you to stop using the plugin, but many of those reasons are worth taking into consideration when deciding whether to keep a plugin on your website.

What Should You Do if the WordPress.org Directory Removes One of Your Site’s Plugins?

Your first course of action should be to try to determine why it was removed. If you’re able to verify that the plugin was removed for a non-security reason, then it might be okay to continue to use it. It’s a judgement call on your part based on all the information you’re able to gather. If you can’t figure out why it was removed, or you confirm that it was removed due to a security vulnerability that hasn’t been fixed, we recommend that you remove the plugin from your website immediately and finding a well-maintained replacement for its functionality.

Conclusion

As we’ve written about in the past, vulnerable plugins are the most common way that attackers compromise WordPress websites. It is critical that, as a site owner, you only install (and keep) reputable plugins on your website, and that you keep them up-to-date and remove them if they are abandoned. The new alerts that we added last week should make that task much easier going forward.

Did you enjoy this post? Share it!


4.40 (25 votes) Your rating:

22 Comments on "New in Wordfence 6.3.11: Abandoned and Removed Plugin Alerts"

Ruth June 20, 2017 at 9:35 am • Reply

THANK YOU . I had up to 11 abandoned plug-ins in multiple sites and deleted them all. Took a lot of time but worth it.

You guys are great

Greg June 20, 2017 at 9:47 am • Reply

We host a number of WordPress sites for our clients and so it is a lot easier to work from the emailed scan summaries than having to go into each site individually to get additional details.

Would it be possible to enhance this new functionality so that it includes things like the WP compatibility tag and date of last update?

Dan Moen June 20, 2017 at 9:56 am • Reply

Hi Greg, thanks for sharing the idea, I passed it on to the dev team.

John June 20, 2017 at 9:47 am • Reply

This is surprising. Why would WordPress allow so many dead plugins to remain in it's system? But, why does WordPress continue to use two different Editors, mashed together...

At June 20, 2017 at 9:55 am • Reply

Very useful feature. Although surprised me. Could you link to details about unpatched secrity in thw alert? Wanted to know the problem l with form manager and fix it.

Dan Moen June 20, 2017 at 9:59 am • Reply

I passed this idea on to the dev team, thanks!

JessieBee June 20, 2017 at 10:08 am • Reply

Thank you! Thank you! I maintain several WordPress sites and I have a hard time keeping up with which plugins I need to keep an eye on because they aren't being maintained. When I got my first Wordfence notice about an abandoned plugin, all I did was "YES!" with fist pump in the air!

Dave June 20, 2017 at 10:20 am • Reply

Thank you very much for adding this feature.

JanM June 20, 2017 at 11:19 am • Reply

What about plugins that are NOT in the plugin directory? Do premium plugins get flagged?

Andie La-Rosa June 20, 2017 at 11:25 am • Reply

Hi Jan, good question. Generally speaking, because we can't keep track of updates to those in the same standardized ways, the scans don't flag premium plugins that aren't in the WordPress plugin repository for new versions or last-updated dates. Hope that helps!

Louis J. Bruno June 20, 2017 at 11:46 am • Reply

Sometimes it's possible to replace an abandoned plug-in with "a well-maintained replacement." In fact, I found several that were well-maintained with better functionality. Since I maintain 30+ sites, I wouldn't have looked for abandoned plug-ins without your prodding. Thanks for that.

But, I was dismayed to find plug-ins removed from the Wordpress directory that had no suitable substitutes. These were helper/extender plug-ins for themes from a well-respected theme provider.

I understand that nobody wants to maintain "old" products forever. And lots of folks make money by constantly recycling websites. But just as the "community" got Microsoft to develop long life cycles, we need to pressure theme developers to be responsible for their themes and related plug-ins for more than a few years.

jd June 20, 2017 at 1:30 pm • Reply

While Bruno makes a valid point about theme developers, the problem with knowing whether a theme has been abandoned or is currently OK on security is that there is no central repository like the wp plugin repository and would be an almost insurmountable task to identify each and every one.

eg: we purchased commercial licenses for almost 600 themes from a dev team, then about 2 years ago the dev team joined w/ another dev team and abandoned all those themes. it became our responsibility to check and maintain them for our personal and customer use.

EllCee June 20, 2017 at 1:17 pm • Reply

Thank you for this, and for your continued quest to help those of us less technologically advanced.

mary June 20, 2017 at 1:27 pm • Reply

yes, this is a big problem, thank you for addressing it.
\
Question: should we really wait 2 years?
I have been deleting them at one year.

Why don't the developers let us know if it is abandoned? Or let us know what they need?

Thanks for everything, Mary

Andie La-Rosa June 20, 2017 at 1:40 pm • Reply

You're quite welcome, Mary. Whether you wait until a plugin hasn't been updated in two or more years before removing it is entirely up to you. There's no definitive consensus on what constitutes an abandoned plugin - some people only give a developer a year or even six months before they are no longer comfortable having a plugin activated on their site, while others feel that our criteria of two years is too strict! It's ultimately a judgment call on each site owner's part.

Developers have a broad variety of reasons for discontinuing work on a plugin, which can range from the personal to the professional to a combination of the two. A developer discontinuing work on a plugin doesn't necessarily mean they've vanished into thin air: if you or your development team want to continue updating a plugin, for example, sometimes the plugin's original developer will work with you to transition the software to your team and will remain otherwise available via social media or their web presence. So if you're curious about the status of a particular plugin, it's worth seeing if you can reach out to the author directly - the odds are good you may get a response!

Debwork June 20, 2017 at 1:39 pm • Reply

Thank you! I have been doing a round of replacing plugins in 2017. It is satisfying to click "I've taken care of this" as the already inactivated plugins are deleted.

I think it will be helpful to take screenshots of the scan to emphasize / validate to the work to clients. No one wants to see big red X's.

(The plugin I was saddest to lose was "Thin Out Revisions" because it's the only one I know of for adding revisions notes, useful for seasonal use.)

Chook June 20, 2017 at 2:28 pm • Reply

That's a Great post and Additional Feature WF :)

Considering plugins in the WP repository are Free, I can only assume some developers give up and abandon their plugins simply because of the lack "appreciation" (income, funds, money, feedback, gratitude, warm fuzzy feeling, etc...)

We have a small yearly budget that gets distributed via the donation option to the developers we love and can only encourage other WP users to give back to the devs of worthy plugins.
You too could have a warm fuzzy feeling :)

Jack June 20, 2017 at 3:16 pm • Reply

I received information about a plugin that's been removed from WordPress.org *and* has a security vulnerability. Thankfully, WordFence's notice included a link to the vulnerability report, and from those details, I may actually be able to address the vulnerability myself with some code changes.

Thanks, WordFence staff, for all the good you do!

Daniel Parsons June 20, 2017 at 9:22 pm • Reply

Some of the plugins on my sites have not been updated in over 3 to 4 years so I need to clean them out of my site. Appreciate your work.

Ian June 21, 2017 at 5:27 pm • Reply

What do you recommend when an owner of plugin says their old one is fine?

Wordfence said "Login Redirect" plugin by wpmudev was last updated 3 years and 1 month ago.

Should I just get wordfence to ignore?
Should wpmudev do a simple edit just so it shows as current?

I said my concerns to wpmudev, and they said:

"Hi there

Thank you for your concern. Actually the plugin is not abandoned, it's just there is no update needed so far. As the plugin does exactly what it says without any issue and still compatible with latest version of wordpress. If we find any issues, immediately we will push an update and to fix that. So the plugin is safe to use

Hope it helps! Please feel free to ask more questions if you have any.

Have a nice day!

Cheers,
Ash"

The reason I mention this on the post is it sounds like other wordfence users are getting concerned and I knee jerk reaction is happening with them removing plugins when it's likely not abandoned, but just a simple plugin which is still fine.

Your advice is appreciated, cheers.

Andie La-Rosa June 22, 2017 at 9:04 am • Reply

Hi Ian,

Ultimately whether you decide to keep a plugin that hasn't been updated in years but whose developer assures you is still free of vulnerabilities as far as they know is a case-by-case judgment call on your part. Generally speaking - and, I should add, this is in no way any kind of commentary on the WPMUDev team either way! - if it's a developer you believe you can trust implicitly to stay on top of any security concerns and at the very least be readily available to fix any issues that may arise, and your Wordfence and Gravityscan scans are consistently coming up clean and all seems well on your website, it's probably safe to leave it. At the end of the day, that's entirely up to you and how you feel about entrusting the security of your site and data to that plugin. Hope that helps!

Elena Saygo June 22, 2017 at 9:32 am • Reply

Thank you for these alerts included with the free version. Very helpful.

Get the latest WordPress security updates and news

Sign up for WordPress security alerts, Wordfence product updates and security news via email.